READERS GUIDEThe questions and discussion topics included here are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about the newly translated novel All Our Worldly Goods by Irène Némirovsky, author of the international bestseller Suite Française.
IntroductionAll Our Worldly Goods first appeared in French in 1947, five years after Irène Némirovsky was murdered at Auschwitz. The novel is a celebration of one couple’s love and marriage in the face of unprecedented historical upheaval. In northern France in the first part of the twentieth century, ordinary lives are violently uprooted by successive world wars. It begins in a placid prewar seaside town, where Pierre Hardelot, the grandson of a wealthy industrialist who rules his family with a will of steel, is in love with his childhood sweetheart, Agnès. His family has decided that he will marry Simone Renaudin, a young woman of his own social class. When Pierre and Agnès defy his family’s plan, they spur a series of interfamilial betrayals, rivalries, and economic reversals that reverberate among three generations. Translator Sandra Smith suggests that All Our Worldly Goods, together with Suite Française, “provides a panoramic view of life in France from 1911 to 1940.” Readers who admired Suite Française will find All Our Worldly Goods a moving and necessary addition to their collection of Némirovsky’s works.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. The novel begins, “They were together, so they were happy” (p. 1). The reader will realize a bit later that this refers to Pierre and Agnès, not Pierre and his fiancée, who is also present. How does this sentence resonate throughout the story? What is the nature of the bond between Pierre and Agnès?
2. How does Némirovsky dramatize the conflict between Madame Hardelot and Madame Florent? Why is the scene of the two mothers in the bathing machine (pp. 11-18) so convincing a presentation of their characters? What does the final sentence on page 19 say about the power these women perceive themselves to have?
3. Némirovsky presents a revealing description of the official dinner celebrating the engagement of Pierre and Simone (pp. 20-23). What does the narrator’s introduction of Pierre’s grandfather, Julien Hardelot, tell us about this man’s philosophy of life (pp. 23-24)? Why is he so adamant in his rejection of Agnès (p. 40), and what is the effect of this rejection on Pierre’s future?
4. The opening chapters stress the importance of propriety, social status, and convention in the bourgeois culture of Saint-Elme. Does Némirovsky seem to suggest that this approach to life is stifling and needs to be swept away? Does she indicate that Pierre and Agnès are not going to comply with the ways of their parents?
5. Pierre’s father, Charles, is a gentle man who accepts his father’s rule, even to the point of not allowing Pierre’s family to stay in his house when they return to Saint-Elme at the start of the war, the night before Pierre goes to join his regiment. “Society relies entirely on nuances,” says Charles to his wife (p. 47). How do Charles’s obedience to his domineering father, and his belief in the importance of propriety, affect your view of his character?
6. When residents of Saint-Elme are forced to leave their homes ahead of the German invasion, the war becomes all too real. What details in chapter 8 reveal the strangeness and terror of their exodus? Why does Charles suggest to Marthe, “Think of what we must look like,” when he wants her to pull herself together after their car is wrecked (p. 70)?
7. When Pierre is briefly home on leave he realizes that “these humble and innocent gifts . . . the cool air, the sun, a red apple, a fire in winter, a woman, children, the life we lead each day . . . ” are “truly important,” and that “the crash and din of war all fade away” in the presence of Agnes (pp. 85-86). Why is this a powerful moment for him? Does this knowledge help him survive his service in both wars?
8. The narrator says that while each person feared death during the war, “each of them was really thinking, ‘It will happen to someone else’” (p. 90). The quote introduces the scene in which Charles is killed in the church. What is the effect of this scene, and of Charles’s thoughts and prayers about his son, just before his sudden death (pp. 93-95)?
9. What does Guy’s conversation with his father about the future reveal about generational conflict (pp. 133-37)? Do Pierre and Agnès have trouble understanding that Guy’s tormented love affair is similar in certain ways to their own forbidden love?
10. Agnès and Pierre feel, with Guy’s recovery from his suicide attempt, that “all they had to do now was to make their way along life’s straight and easy path, two old horses, harnessed together, bearing the same burden, until they died” (p. 158). How effective are such moments in the pacing of the novel, given that the reader knows that the couple will still have to face another war?
11. Discuss the relationship between Pierre and Agnès. Is the depth of their love and dedication to each other unusual? Does Némirovsky present their marriage as an ideal and mature marriage, compared with other love affairs and marriages in the novel?
12. Why does Madame Florent say to herself, after telling the story of Agnès and Pierre’s love to Rose, “I was born to be a great leader” (p. 185)? What is the strategic feat she has just engineered (pp. 180-85)?
13. After the First World War, Julien Hardelot became in effect the ruler of Saint-Elme, directing its reconstruction. “The inhabitants saw him as a symbol of their indestructible land” (p. 97). Compare Pierre’s role to his grandfather’s when he returns to Saint-Elme and the factory in chapter 28. Does Pierre, in returning to his family’s business, conform to Saint-Elme’s expectations as the representative of their leading family (pp. 123, 128)? How, during the German invasion, does he set himself apart from his grandfather and from his own father, Charles?
14. A. S. Byatt wrote of All Our Worldly Goods, “The tale has a rhythm of crisis and a rhythm of ‘the ordinary’ deftly put together.” Do you agree? How does Némirovsky manage to give a realistic sense of ordinary family life while also conveying the direct experience on civilians of two successive world wars?
15. Pierre says, “Will there never be an end to my problems? You get married, have children, establish yourself, grow old. You think you’ve managed it all. But no. Everything is just beginning” (p. 131). The novel is largely about the effects of time and change on scales both large and small. How well do Agnès and Pierre deal with constant change, loss, and upheaval?
16. Némirovsky’s writing is acutely sensitive to the emotional and psychological effects of war. For example: “All the Parisians were saying they would be bombed that very night. They waited, without real fear, but with curious fascination, as a bird waits for a snake to appear. You can’t run away, but the danger seems too unbelievable. You can’t understand it; you can’t imagine it” (p. 210). Discuss this passage, and others that you find striking in the context of her characters’ war experience.
17. The novel is based upon a series of repetitions: what kinds of love relationships and power struggles are repeated, and what is the effect of these repetitions on your understanding of the family and its experience?
18. Given all that Agnès and Pierre have been through, is it surprising that they both survive to be reunited in the final chapter? What is the emotional impact of the last few pages?
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